Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I’m an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I’d surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, “Where are you from?” to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I’d carry on working toward the goals that brought me here.
In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants — regardless of whether we’re naturalized citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion. We all arrived here bearing dreams.
In the upcoming U.S. election, even after decades living here, I won’t be voting. I have a “green card”, am a “resident alien” and still call myself an ex-patriate, even though I’m really more of an immigrant.
Partly, it’s a language issue.
“Immigrant” often seems to connote someone fleeing, desperate, as many are, for a safe haven, a fresh start, place to live without fear of government repression, criminal gang warfare, religious intolerance.
For too many Americans, it also connotes “illegal”.
For many of us, though, it’s a place to spread our wings, to see how, if and how well we fit into this enormous place.
When I crossed that border as a resident-to-be, I felt like a raindrop hitting an ocean.
Could I ever possibly make something of myself here?
I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)
This election cycle has, I think for many of us who left another country, been a difficult and exhausting one. It has for many Americans!
But for those of us who chose the U.S., filled with hope (however naive) that it would offer us a better life…it’s often been a frightening and depressing time.
The 2008 bank crisis was a disaster. Three recessions in 20 years has meant depressed earnings and savings for many of us.
Now, a campaign so ugly and so bitter and so divisive that even my deeply patriotic American husband has been wondering if we should move back to Canada.
I chose the U.S. for several reasons:
— half of my family are American, and successful in business, academia and the diplomatic corps. I wanted to better understand them and how they prospered. Who were they?
— Canadians grow up inundated by American media and politics; something like 85 percent of the publications on our shelves are created by the U.S.
— Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life. I was tired of that.
— A country of 35 million people is small, and offers limited work opportunities.
And, like everyone who leaves their homeland for a new one, I carried many dreams with me.
I’ve achieved some of them: (home ownership, a happy marriage, a successful career as a writer, some recognition in my highly competitive field.)
I don’t ever regret choosing the United States over Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to retain deep friendships at home (I still call it that!) and we go north about once or twice a year as well.
But, after so many years here, I also feel a deep loyalty to so many progressive Americans’ best hopes — for social justice, for racial equality, for decently-paid work for everyone.
Like millions of others, I want the best for this place.
It’s a wonder, really, that so many of us are able to survive, even thrive!
As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto I studied Spanish and, for a while, volunteered to do interpreting work with Chilean refugees who came to Toronto fleeing the repression, abduction and torture of the regime of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.
As some of you know, it’s exhausting to confide your worst moments ever to a total stranger, to relive them over and over to prove how much you’ve suffered. For a man of Latino heritage, having to do so to a young Canadian girl, me, must have been so difficult.
I won’t share here what they told me, but it was terrifying and I will never forget it, no matter how much I’d like to.
I vividly recall my first protest. Various organizations and individuals came together in outrage over a subpar sentencing recommendation for a convicted rapist. Armed with a sign demanding our justice system take rape seriously, I marched in front of the court alongside veteran activists, and every time I tried to join in the chants (“If you do the crime, you must do the time!”), I choked up.
That lump in my throat wasn’t borne out of sadness, but from an overwhelming feeling of togetherness and pride. I was incredibly proud to be part of a movement that dedicated itself to protecting and promoting women’s rights, one that fearlessly advocated for sexual assault victims.
Feeling of awe aside, I remained unconvinced of what end result, if any, our action would have that day. As it turns out, our protest and an online petition made a difference; the judge handed down the maximum sentence.
That triumph—my first real taste of feminist activism—taught me a powerful lesson I’ll never forget: that speaking up can make a tangible difference. And not just in one’s own healing journey, but in the lives of others. I loved playing a part, no matter how small, in that process.
It’s a perpetual dilemma when, if and how much to reveal to someone new to you, to peel back the onion and trust them with something deeply difficult.
I had two friends who were abused as young women, one by a relative, who took many years to finally share that with me. One always wore layers and layers of clothing and scarves, and I wondered why.
Then I knew and understood.
Only when I took the chance, here, and blogged about dealing with my mother’s mental illness did another person who reads Broadside open up about her own experiences with it, sparking a deeper intimacy and growing friendship as a result of taking that risk.
I’m now reading a small, slim book by a man who knows a great deal about survival — Sebastian Junger. The book is Tribe, and he examines the social dislocation so many of us now feel in an era of constant “connection” but often very shallow links to others.
What he focuses on is how we all float around, working, marrying, (or not), having children (or not), but how some of us long, very deeply, for a profound sense of belonging.
He writes of a young woman who lived through the war in Bosnia and who misses the powerful camaraderie it produced then.
Junger’s book talks about how a true tribe requires some sort of initiation, and a very deep sense of shared values.
For decades, journalism, has been the tribe I’ve been proud to join and belong to.
No matter how much some people viciously deride “the media” and call us “presstitutes” I’m still happy this has been my choice.
I chose Tarrytown on a recon trip for some of these reasons: it’s very diverse for a suburban New York town; its gorgeous location; its history and architecture and scale; easy access to Manhattan (40 minutes by car or train.)
It’s now become home to all the hipsters fleeing crazy-expensive Brooklyn!
I grew up and spent 25 years in Toronto, a large city that often makes lists of best places to live.
I didn’t hate Toronto, and usually return once or twice a year to see old friends there, but it has many ugly areas, a brutally expensive cost of housing, (and very poor quality below $1m), for purchase, crappy quality rentals and a long, grim winter.
More than anything, it held a limited set of professional opportunities — I know people still in the same jobs or workplace as when I left, decades ago.
As we hope to retire in a few years, deciding where to live and why becomes more and more a conscious decision, not just dominated by the proximity to enough decent jobs in our field.
I’ve long planned to spend some of that time living in France, some in the U.S. and some in Canada, with a lot of travel, as long as our health and finances allow.
The United States Capitol. Policies and laws enacted here affect everyone, rarely equally.
There’s an expression I hear a lot in the U.S. — to put your thumb on the scale — i.e. to tilt a result in your favor.
I live near New York City, in a county rife with stunning wealth, (and the not-so-wealthy!) so we have a front-row seat to this constant jockeying for power.
I believe in its opposite — the level playing field.
As some of us watch the Olympics this week, fair competition is front and center.
The Muslim-American fencer Ibithaj Muhammad I just blogged about got to Rio thanks to a playing field, (in this case, piste!), leveled by the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a 15-year-old non-profit in New York City founded by a former bronze medalist who is African-American. The program has worked with 4,000 lower-income children, offering them opportunities to learn this elegant, historic and fantastic sport, and one all too often seen as impossibly elitist.
Then there’s this. From an explainer in The Economist:
A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report into Russian doping by a Canadian lawyer, Richard McLaren, was published only on July 18th—18 days before the opening ceremony. Furthermore, the contents of Mr McLaren’s report were appalling. Beginning in 2011 the Russian ministry of sport set up a comprehensive programme to circumvent anti-doping laws. It reported false negatives to WADA, created a steroid cocktail to boost performance (the name it was given, “Duchess”, is worthy of Ian Fleming), worked with the FSB, the state security service, to evade independent testing, and tampered with drugs tests while hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The world is, for many of us, a highly competitive place. The more ambitious you are — socially, financially, professionally — the greasier the pole.
Harvard, already hell to get into, also has private on-campus clubs so exclusive that people weep on their doorsteps when refused admission.
Because what’s the point of privilege — unless you guard it ferociously?
The Fly is one of six remaining all-male final clubs. They are, if not the hub, the apex of social life at Harvard — upscale surrogates for those classic centers of college merriment, sororities and fraternities…
Entree can feel like belonging, rejection like a scarlet F…
But to many students on the outside, the clubs are laden with a legacy of upper-crust snobbishness. As the writer Kenneth Auchincloss referred to them in a 1958 dispatch in The Harvard Crimson: Final clubs are gathering places of the “St. Grottlesex crop,” an amalgamation of the names of several elite East Coast boarding schools, who “look to the Clubs as centers for privacy and ‘good-fellowship,’ cut off from the hectic University by their locked front doors, their aura of secrecy, and a generally shared feeling of superiority.”
…The elaborate courtship of the desirable can begin with an engraved invitation slipped under a dorm room door to “punch” — a selection process that continues with a series of outings and culminates in a black-tie dinner feting the few who make it through.
My husband Jose works part-time as a photo editor at abcnews.com, owned by Disney; this week they handed out brand-new backpacks, asking employees to fill them with donated school supplies.
We don’t have kids, so the whole back-to-school routine is something we don’t do. We had a blast running around Staples, and discovered that it cost $50 to buy everything on the list.
That’s still a significant sum in our family — and an impossibly high one for a family with a lower income and/or multiple children to shop for.
We hope the recipient enjoys it!
Here’s a sobering piece from The Atlantic:
In dealing with the persistence of intergenerational wealth, the changes that would be most effective are also the most sweeping: Taking private money out of political campaigns would give more of a voice to people who’d benefit from stronger social policies. Bolstering housing-voucher programs would let poorer families move into better neighborhoods. Increasing taxes at the uppermost end of the income spectrum would redistribute perpetuated wealth. Finding ways to get lower- and middle-income workers to put more money into savings would help them improve their lots.
So, the lesson from this report: Take whatever extreme, politically unfeasible changes everyone thought were necessary to increase economic mobility and make them more extreme and more unfeasible—that might be enough.
For refugees, fleeing Syria, it’s a hunger for basic dignity, as Mohammed Ali, 26, told Cnet:
“I just want beginning,” he says. “I just want to be at level zero, because here we are before level zero…I feel nothing change. Like, I was in Syria a number and here I am still a number. I have to be a person.”
It’s become something of a new anthem in itself…”I’m moving to Canada!” if Trump (or whichever Presidential candidate most terrifies/disgusts/depresses you) wins the nomination, or Presidency.
Not so fast!
I left Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal) in 1988 to take a temporary editing job in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Why there? I was madly in love with an American, a physician doing his medical residency at Dartmouth College after studying at McGill; we met when he was in Montreal. We later married — and divorced.
I came to the U.S. on an H1-B, a visa that’s difficult to get — the employer must advertise the position and be demonstrably unable to fill it with a qualified American. I initially came for three months, but had long wanted to come permanently, able to do so thanks to my mother’s American citizenship, which allowed me to obtain a “green card”, and become (o’ infelicitous phrase!) a “resident alien.”
I’ve lived in New York, in a suburban town near Manhattan, since 1989. It stuns me sometimes to realize it’s been so long, but I’m still here.
Like many Canadians, blessed with a terrific university education, (and zero debt upon graduation, thanks to low tuition costs), I felt, and was, able to compete with sharp-elbowed Americans all grasping for the various brass rings of publishing and journalism.
I craved a larger place to test out my skills. (It’s not easy!)
My maternal grandmother and her antecedents were all American, as are many cousins, some of them highly accomplished, one an ambassador, another an archaeologist. I was curious to know more about the culture that had shaped them.
Canadians are deluged by American media so it’s not as though we don’t hear about the place, all the time.
I was also tired of constantly being mistaken for an American, a very odd experience from fellow Canadians, where being openly ambitious is a no-no.
Not in New York!
Canada is usually routinely invisible to American news outlets. We’re used to it.
But now that the 2016 Presidential election campaign has become a bizarre and frightening circus, many Americans are wondering if that nation to the North — the one they typically ignore in quieter times — is a better option.
While Canada recently welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, don’t be too quick to assume there’s an equal welcome for thousands of panicked Americans eager to flee a political scene they find abhorrent.
Read the Canadian government website for potential immigrants and you’ll find a list of exclusions, from health and financial problems to a DUI conviction. Yes, some of you will be able to obtain work visas, but many Canadian jobs pay less than you’re used to – and taxes are higher. You’ll also wait longer for access to some medical care.
Before assuming Canada is a default lifetsyle option, read its newspapers and listen to the CBC. Read our history and some of our authors, not just the ones you know, like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Talk to people who live there. In other words, before you reassure yourself that if it comes to a Trump inauguration, you can pack your bags and head to Vancouver (maybe not Vancouver – CRAZY expensive to live there), you might want to take a minute to acquaint yourself with some specific attributes of that country to the north
I wrote the piece from a place of mixed emotions.
In some ways I miss Canada terribly — my oldest and dearest friends, my personal history, a political climate that doesn’t demonize women for wanting reproductive freedom or gays for wanting to marry.
I miss a shared culture and its references.
Not to mention Justin Trudeau, our new 44-year-old Prime Minister.
But I also left for reasons.
This is the challenge of every ex-patriate and immigrant; we leave a place we know well and possibly love, throwing our fresh hopes onto a new land and its values, political and economic.
For the first time since moving here, I’ve wondered about moving back, even for a year. My American husband loves Canada and has portable skills. We’ll see.
How about you?
Is moving to Canada an option you would ever consider?
Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.
I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.
We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.
If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.
In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.
It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.
I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.
I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.
Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.
I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.
Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.
But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.
(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)
The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.
What better metaphor?
In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.
It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendlyall the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)
I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p
And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.
Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps; when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.
In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.
I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?
And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.
In the States?
Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.
If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.
When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.
When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.
I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years. That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.
In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.
There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.
If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?
I’ve lived in five countries and seven cities and towns in my life. That’s a lot for some, and nothing for people like TCK’s, third culture kids who move a lot around the world, with parents in the media, military or missionaries, to name only three.
It’s when, how and and where you find a sense of community, of truly belonging to a tribe of like-minded people, that intrigues me.
For some of us — like you, here! — it’s on-line. A place, 24/7, we know we’ll find some other fun, cool people who share our beliefs or concerns. It might be a widows’ support group or gamers or people coping with a chronic illness.
Real-life community interests me the most because that’s where, you should pardon the phrase, shit gets real. On-line people can quickly block, unfriend or delete posts they dislike or disagree with.
Face to face? Meeting people of different religions, politics, races and nationalities is what makes community vibrant, in my view. It’s where we hear different perspectives and learn (or practice!) our social skills. It’s where we see the value, at best, in one another and our individual and shared experiences.
It’s where diplomacy, tact, civility keep us from utter mayhem.
On a good day.
I belong to several communities, each of which nurture me in different ways:
— a local Episcopal church. I attend infrequently, usually every 4 to 6 weeks or so. I’ve been attending there since 1998, though, so am known and know others to some degree. The people there are generally my age or older, many of them far wealthier and more politically conservative. No one seems to really understand what I do for a living or why. But I also think it valuable for us to be there for that reason, to meet “the other.”
— a co-ed softball team. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. In a place like New York City, where work and family always trump anything else, that’s pretty amazing. I love these people. We range in age from 20s to 60s, from lawyers and doctors to a retired ironworker, editors, schoolteachers. When one of our members recently died, more than a dozen of us drove hours to his memorial service to show our love and respect for him and his widow. Here’s an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times.
— several writers’ groups, both on-line and off-line. As someone who’s been earning her living as a journalist for decades, I need to know my industry intimately and hear what others are up to. I offer advice and support, as others do for me.
— my dance classes. I’ve been studying ballet and jazz for decades and take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday (when I am being consistent!) I’ve gotten to know my teachers personally and really value the camaraderie they create in their classrooms. My fellow students live in my town and I run into them at the grocery store, concerts, on the street. I like that.
— our apartment building. It’s hard for me to even believe it, but I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years. So I’ve gotten to know some of my neighbors quite well as it’s the sort of place people like to stay, often moving into in their 70s and beyond. I’ve watched people’s children grow up and go to and graduate from college. As someone without children or close relative with children, it’s a way to mark the passage of time.
As I watch the sea of migrants — refugees, more accurately — heading north from Syria and other nations into Europe, hoping to re-start their lives somewhere safe(r), I think about all they have had to leave behind — homes, furniture, assets, educations, family, friends.
Some have lost their husbands, wives and children, killed en route.
There were no razor-wire-topped fences hastily being built, as in Hungary now. But the refugees had to begin a long, slow process of finding advocates to legally represent them; as a college student studying Spanish, I did some volunteer interpreting.
I will never forget what I heard, even if I wish I could — horrific narratives of rape, imprisonment, torture. It was difficult work, for them (proud, traumatized men, many my father’s age, having to recount the worst moments of their life to a young and unfamiliar woman and other strangers) and for me (I had no idea the world could be so cruel. Their stories, decades later, live in my head.)
When you leave your country of origin, (which I did at 30, leaving Canada for the U.S., admittedly under no duress), you start anew. Your life, your accomplishments, your advanced degrees from places no one here has ever heard of or attended…sometimes vanish overnight.
No one knows your parents or went to the same schools or ate the same food. They didn’t watch the same television shows or read the same writers.
Not only do you now not know a soul, the people on whom you must now rely — landlords, banks, police, neighbors, teachers, medical staff, the legal system — are unfamiliar. You may shake at the very sight of a uniform or a gun.
And they use words and phrases they know well, and which may make no sense to you, either as language or as functional concepts.
A new language must be learned, the streets and transit systems of a new city or or town. A new national anthem and currency. You will miss subtle cultural cues everyone else understands, sometimes for decades to come.
If you’re fortunate enough to have classic capital — money, savings, assets you can liquidate like gold or jewels — you’ve got something to start with.
The most crucial, though, in my experience, is social capital — the vast network of people who know, like and trust you enough to refer you into their valued networks. You need a job, an income, a place to start again.
Too often, especially here in a dog-eat-dog place like New York, people lucky enough to find a lifeboat pull up their oars, so to speak. No, they will not help you or return your emails or phone calls or texts.
That takes time to accumulate and to acquire. Here, I see it used (and abused) most powerfully among those who attended the same colleges and universities, sometimes the elite prep schools that feed them. Alumni networks here seem of paramount importance compared to my prior experience in a nation with 10 percent of the U.S. population.
We recently sat with a working-class friend who came to the U.S. from Eastern Europe at 24 with $200 in her pocket. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said.
I arrived in New Hampshire, via Montreal, and would honestly now say that I didn’t either. Had I known how hard it would be to reinvent, I doubt I would have made the leap. And I was fortunate — young, healthy, educated, with work experience and savings.
I had visited the U.S. many times before I moved here and it’s not that big a shock — not like trading Syria for Sweden, for example.
But we’re here now, with friends and hair salons and dentists and a gym we like. Apartments with views that we treasure.
Social capital is the value of network trusting relationships between individuals in an economy.
Individual capital, which is inherent in persons, protected by societies, and trades labour for trust or money. Close parallel concepts are “talent“, “ingenuity“, “leadership“, “trained bodies”, or “innate skills” that cannot reliably be reproduced by using any combination of any of the others above. In traditional economic analysis individual capital is more usually called labor.
Have you left behind your country of origin for a new one?
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” ― E.B. White, Here Is New York
I arrived in New York, with no friends or family or job or connections here, just in time for the first recession in my industry, journalism. To find my first job here, (which I finally found through an ad in The New York Times), I made 150 cold calls to total strangers.
I cried a lot.
After a terrific few years working for major Canadian daily newspapers, it was rough on my ego, and my aspirations, to realize that what I’d accomplished meant nothing here because it hadn’t happened in the U.S., let alone within the city’s five boroughs.
I finally did find a position, as a senior editor at a well-respected, now-long-gone monthly magazine called World Press Review, at a salary $5,000 a year lower than what I’d earned in Montreal two years before as a reporter for the Gazette.
Welcome to New York!
Why did I want to move here?
I’d been visiting since I was 12, so it was not wholly unfamiliar.
My mother was born here and was married at St. Bartholomew’s, a huge Romanesque pile on Park Avenue, where her grandmother lived. I was legally able to move here from my native Canada because I obtained my green card through my mother’s American citizenship.
As an ambitious journalist, I dreamed of being published and by the major American magazines and book publishers I grew up reading — Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times. I also knew that sustaining a 30+ year career in Canada, with a much smaller set of professional opportunities, wasn’t for me; I’d feel bored and always have wondered, what if…
Reinventing my life in New York was hard!
In some ways, it still is. For every full-time job or freelance opportunity, there are hundreds of ferociously determined and well-prepared competitors. Socially? I still find it lonely, although I’ve made a few friends; people focus on their families or their work and have long, tiring commutes.
If you arrive here without one second of American education — especially elite feeders to the best jobs, like prep schools and the Ivy League — you arrive severely deprived of crucial social capital. You need a lot of talent, drive, skill and luck to shove open some of these very heavy doors.
But the city is also a source of tremendous pleasure for me, even as I live in a small town north of the city, where I own an apartment; I’m easily in town, by car or train, within 40 minutes.
I’ve had some of the best moments of my life here, like picking up the galleys for my first book at the Sixth Avenue offices of Simon & Schuster, and clutching them to my heart in ecstasy. I’d achieved my dream! A book published by one of the country’s biggest houses (Pocket Books.)
Hard to imagine what you can’t find here, whether music, dance, opera, theater, fine art, museums…My favorites are a little obscure, like the Mint Theater, (which revives earlier works and which is housed, oddly, in a midtown office building), and the Japan Society, which mounts small, excellent shows in a lovely, quiet exhibition space in the east 40s.
I have a favorite painting at the Met I like to visit, this painting of Joan of Arc, first shown in 1880, by the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage.
This image stops me cold in my tracks — hung in a busy hallway — every time. It’s enormous.
I feel as if she’s standing right in front of me, close enough to touch. I love how dazed she looks, the overturned wooden stool, and the ghostly image of her, in armor, floating behind her, her awaiting future.
I love everything about this painting: its colors, details, mood and subject matter. And am so lucky I can see it when I want to.
Another favorite is a pair of gold Roman earrings at the Met, tiny cherubs riding astride birds, exquisite in every detail.
You must get to Lincoln Center, both stunning visually (the fountain!) and culturally. I recently treated myself to a $65 box seat to see Joshua Bell play Bach and Mozart. Swoon!
Food and Drink:
If you can’t find a decent meal here, (and in Brooklyn and Queens as well), you’re not paying attention, from elegant old-school venues like Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, Sardi’s, the Campbell Apartment, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis and La Grenouille to the newest, trendiest spots. (If you can’t afford a meal, you can probably afford a cocktail just to enjoy the atmosphere and history.)
I tend to return to old favorites like Red Cat on 10th., Balthazar on Crosby St;, The Lion on West 9th, Toloache on 50th., and Cafe Cluny and Morandi in the West Village. I love Caffe Reggio and Bosie Tea Parlor for a long chat with a pal over coffee or tea and Grey Dogs, east and west versions, for breakfast.
Buying food is a joy in places like Eataly, Chelsea Market, the Union Square Greenmarket and the city’s many specialty stores, from Kalustyan’s (spices), Murray’s Cheese, Russ and Daughters to Porto Rico Coffee and Tea.
The smallest few blocks here will reward your attention, especially with amazing architecture and fenestration. The shaded and cobble-stoned streets of the West Village are lovely. So are the funky bits of the East Village, East 9th being a favorite for shopping, eating and looking.
The parks are an obvious choice and so is the Brooklyn Bridge, especially at sunset; I bet fewer than 5 percent of anyone in New York knows that the Brooklyn Bridge would never have been completed without the skills and determination of a 19th-century woman — Emily Roebling, wife of the engineer, Washington Roebling, whose job it was to design the bridge and who fell ill halfway through the project.
My favorite park is Bryant Park in midtown, filled in summer and fall and spring with folding dark green chairs and tables, plenty of shady trees, even a carousel. In winter there’s a skating rink with cheap rentals and great music.
I attended The New York School of Interior Design in the 1990s, intending to leave journalism and change careers. I didn’t, but now teach writing there. It’s an honor to head back through those huge red doors as a member of their adjunct faculty. (I’ve also taught at NYU [adults] and Pratt Institute.)
Columbia and many other schools are always putting on panel discussions and lectures open to the public, offering tremendous, free opportunities to keep learning.
Sigh. From indie spots like my favorite vintage store, Edith Machinist on Rivington to Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s to bookstores, specialty shops, (one selling nothing but umbrellas, for example), and pop-ups. Saks’ shoe department has its own zip code, a fun spot to watch oligarchs and their wives buying bagfuls of $1,500 stilettos and squealing girls from the heartland swooning over their first in-person sighting of Jimmy Choos and Manolos.
If, like me, you looooooove unusual and exotic fragrances, (men’s and women’s), you cannot missAedes de Venustas on Christopher Street. Buy a box of this soap, (3 bars for $42), and sniff it happily all the way home.
Check out the Tenement Museum for a truly immersive feel for NYC vernacular history and the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island.
I love the atmosphere of the city’s classic 100-year-old-plus bars or restaurants, including Old Town Bar, Fanelli’s, the Landmark and the Ear Inn. If you sit in The White Horse, you’ll sit where my namesake — Caitlin Thomas, wife of the poet Dylan Thomas — once sat as well.
You can’t miss the cathedral of commuters, Grand Central Terminal, on 42d Street. It is breathtaking in its beauty and scale, with details from carved marble fountains to gleaming, enormous chandeliers and a brilliant turquoise ceiling with gold-painted constellations. Built in 1913, renovations were completed in 1996.
It’s too easy to forget that Manhattan is, after all, an island. Get to the western edge and enjoy the sunset at one of the many pier-side restaurants and bars. Take a Circle Line ferry around the island. Rent a kayak.
Or jump on the Staten Island ferry and head out as the sun is setting to watch the city light up.
What do you enjoy most about living in — or visiting — New York City?
“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)
Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.
I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.
By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.
And so I stayed.
In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.
But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.
So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.
Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!
Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.
So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:
P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.
M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.
M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.
L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.
S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.
S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.
I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.
Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.
You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.
You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.
You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.
They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you — or seen you do it — in years.
We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.
We are witnesses to one another’s lives.
(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)
The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.
The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.
I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.